Modesitt's second Recluce novel — which does not follow the first sequentially, making it a stand-alone — is a textbook sophomore slump that, after a stirring first half, takes a slowboat to Boringland and doesn't return until the tail end. If you aren't already a member of the loyal cult following that has attached itself to Recluce (such cults inevitably spring up around virtually any epic fantasy saga), this isn't the volume that will convert you.
Set many years prior to The Magic of Recluce, the story details the actual founding of the island as a haven for those who practice Order-magic. (Remember this confusing detail, kids: in Modesitt's world, Order is represented by black, Chaos by white.) And it all gets off to a very good start. Creslin is the male descendant of the Marshall of the Westwinds, living high in the mountain range called the Roof of the World. The Westwinds' locals adhere closely to an ancient legend that most other societies on the island-continent of Candar no longer accept, that they are the direct descendants of the first settlers on Candar. (Modesitt reveals that his world was, like Bradley's Darkover and McCaffrey's Pern, populated by space travelers whose descendants have long since lost touch with spacefaring technology.) Creslin, a mere man in a dogmatically matrilineal culture, has nothing to look forward to other than to be married off to a sister of the ruler of nearby Sarronnyn. Such an allegiance will, it is hoped, prevent the white Chaos-wizards, who pretty much run the show in eastern Candar, from moving west and taking over the whole continent.
But Creslin, who's something of a rebel, you see, wants none of this. By golly, he's as good with a blade as any of the Westwinds' female fighters! He makes a foolhardy but daring escape from his escort the day they begin their journey to Saronnyn. This part of the book holds your attention well, with its gender-role reversal premise. Creslin's risky solo flight across the frozen landscape is the stuff classic high adventure is made of. Though he's not as compelling a protagonist as Lerris from the first novel, Creslin's still sympathetic, mainly because Modesitt doesn't portray him as a spoiled child of privilege, but rather as a regular fellow who'd prefer a regular life to one of status and wealth in which he'd be little more than a boy-toy.
Things get dicier for Creslin when he learns that his quaint little magical skill in manipulating breezes and winds is, in fact, a latent talent in weather control that could very well mean he's a full-blown Order-master. When the Chaos-wizards find Creslin in their city of Fairhaven, trouble ensues. But he escapes and makes his way to the dukedom of Montgren, where he finds temporary refuge and meets for the first time his betrothed, Megaera. Megaera is, at first, wholly unsympathetic. True, she's had a rough time of her own. She's been magically bound to Creslin by her sister against her will, and Creslin's escape resulted in her being sent from hearth and home to find him. So she's understandably bitter at having her life turned upside down. But her anger builds a wall between her and the reader just as it does between her and Creslin, and it's a while before we feel for her.
About 250 pages in, the story really starts to sag. Creslin and Megaera find themselves persona non grata on Candar. They're forced to travel to the nearby island of Recluce, where the duke of Montgren has a small holding and which no one else cares about as it's an arid desert wasteland. Once they get there, the novel becomes a pure snooze. The book's second half mostly deals with the administrative minutiae of getting bleak little Recluce self-sustaining. How much food can we grow this season? How long will it take? How much water do we have? Let's build some real buildings. What can we trade with Candar? Who will trade with us? How much will shipping cost? Jeez, shake me, wake me when it's over.
Modesitt has made all of his behind-the-scenes politics wildly labyrinthine. Though it's not as hard to follow as it could have been, it's not absorbing enough to give readers a stake in it either. In one of the few interesting moments, we learn early on that the Chaos-wizards arranged for Creslin to be born in the first place, since they figured a son born to the matrilineal Westwinders would upset the applecart. But now that Creslin's becoming a fierce Order-master, they find they've created a monster. This could have juiced the plot with some nice irony, but Modesitt doesn't really follow through with it after introducing it on page 5 of a 536-page book.
As for the Chaos-Wizards themselves, well, you know...they aren't exactly the kind of villains who'll make you hide under the bedsheets. We know nothing about them as characters. They only turn up in brief chapters, going "hmmm" in a mildly dastardly way before dispatching lackies to kill Creslin and Megaera, whom Creslin summarily massacres with typhoons. They're just The Bad Guys who show up when the story needs them to, to do Bad Guy Stuff. And the most sinister thing the High Chaos Wizard can think to say at the end is "No one wants my job after all this." Cry me a river. Are these wizards or middle management bureaucrats?
It isn't until the very end — literally the last 50 pages — that Modesitt pulls off something of a bottom-of-the-ninth comeback, as the tension that has been slowly ratcheting up and up throughout the novel finally erupts into all-out war. The climax, for anyone who makes it that far, has sufficient entertainment value that we can be happy Modesitt gave the ending of The Towers of the Sunset almost as much magic as he gave its title.